Hylton trying to qualify for season-opening Daytona 500 — at age 72

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 16, 2007

By Jenna Fryer

Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Long after the big-budget NASCAR teams pulled into the Daytona garage, a bright yellow hauler — sans the logos and pricey paint scheme — navigated its way through the gate.

Perched behind the wheel of the big rig was 72-year-old James Hylton, whose decades-old image donned the side of the truck. He steered his way past Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and the rest of today’s NASCAR stars to his assigned-spot along the fence then went to work unloading his car.

Yes, his car.

The 1966 Rookie of the Year is attempting a comeback of epic proportions, bringing a car to preseason testing Monday as he chases his long-shot dream of qualifying for next month’s Daytona 500.

“I am doing this for seniors to show that at 70 years old, you don’t have to go hunting for an old-folks home. You can go race for a little bit,” Hylton said. “A lot of the old drivers want to come out here and hang out in the pits and see if I can do it.”

The odds are stacked against Hylton, who made the first of his 15 Daytona 500 starts in 1966. But he’s not doing this because he foolishly thinks he can win the Super Bowl of NASCAR.

Rather, Hylton just wants a spot in the record books as the oldest driver to ever make a Cup race. He already holds the mark in both the Busch and ARCA Series, but is now focused on making it a trifecta. The Cup record of age 65 is shared by Hershel McGriff (Sonoma, 1993) and Jim Fitzgerald (Riverside, 1987).

“More power to him,” said David Stremme, one of 11 current Cup drivers who wasn’t born when Hylton notched his only two victories. “You’ve got to believe that if he makes the race, he might earn more money finishing last than he did in an entire season of his early days.

“That kind of money could carry a guy through an entire year and make it worth giving it a shot.”

Indeed, Carl Edwards won $269,882 last season for finishing 43rd in the biggest race of the year. Hylton, meanwhile, estimates the most money he ever made in a single season was “right around $150,000.”

“I won Talladega (in 1972) and it paid $24,000,” Hylton said. “Now they pay you more than that just to show up.”

But Hylton has to do a lot more than just show up, which he learned the hard way on the first of three days of testing. When he headed out to the track at the start of the morning session, his radio didn’t work and it took hours for him to get it functioning.

By the time he made his first lap, every other driver had practiced, broke for lunch, then practiced some more.

In all, Hylton ran just five laps and his top speed of 181.397 mph was the slowest of the day — and a far cry from the 185.090 mph that David Gilliland posted to lead the day.

“You can’t beat youth, I know that,” he shrugged.

And he may not be able to beat the numbers, either. About 60 drivers are expected to vie for the 43 spots in the Daytona 500 field.

But Hylton will be giving his effort in a proven car and good strong engine, all courtesy of Richard Childress. Hylton has known the car owner since the two raced against each other in the 1970s, and Childress agreed to sell a superspeedway car to him from his fleet.

The car that was selected is a good one, too: Robby Gordon drove it to victory in a Daytona qualifying race in 2004.

“The ace in the hole for me is Richard Childress,” Hylton said. “Unofficially, he’s not backing this thing. But as a friend, he is. Him and I raced together back in the early ’70s, and we traveled together and doubled-up our pit crews. I don’t know what happened — he went on to be a multimillionaire, and I went on to be poor.”

Despite a decent career (he was runner-up for the NASCAR championship three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice in an 11-year stretch), Hylton is not living the good life. He comes from a time when driver salaries were next to nothing and purses were peanuts.

After starting his career as a mechanic and crew chief for Rex White and Ned Jarrett, Hylton made his driving debut at Manassas, Va., in 1964 with a 19th-place finish that paid $100.

He spent much of the past decade toiling in the ARCA series, running the full schedule last season before finally deciding to call it career. But after his final race last season, his old childhood friend talked Hylton into coming back.

J.C. Weaver, owner of Mountain Rock Music, a publishing and recording company, bought the car from Childress and will sponsor Hylton for the 500.

“He said, ‘Who is going to sponsor a 72-year-old?’ and I said, ‘I am. We going to Daytona,’ ” Weaver recalled. “Now here we are.”